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Stay Inside or You Perish

December 13, 2008


By Vladimir Nabokov

I picked up this book on a whim a few weeks ago. I was planning on reading only Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day during finals week, but once I’m buried in shelves of books, I can’t leave with just one. I was in the American authors section, and so I was surprised when, a few rows over, I found Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita (like Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude) has been lingering on my “Books to be Read Immediately” list for years now, and I’ve just never read it. I compromised with Pnin, because it was shorter than Lolita, and I only had five days to read it since I would be leaving school soon.

Pnin was, I think, a suitable–if perhaps mild–introduction to the charm of Nabokov’s prose. He based a large portion of the novel and its surroundings on his experiences as a professor at Wellesley, Cornell and Harvard. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin is a Russian professor at the imaginary Waindell College and he is, in a word, pathetic. Pnin is small and meek and fumbles with English and social interactions. But we like him because we feel sorry for him.

There is great sympathy and allure in the immigrant story–a truth that it seems many authors, particularly recently, are picking up on (Lahiri and Shteyngart come to mind). Immigrants make excellent characters because they are mutable. Uprooted from their homelands, burdened with the pain of memory, they are forced to assimilate–in varying degrees, depending on their personalities–to an often unwelcoming new culture. Pnin is especially impressionable and defenseless and so we are intrigued because we want to know how he will end up in the salad bowl of the American life.

Pnin’s story is not especially engaging and I confess that it was only the funny, crystalline style of Nabokov’s writing that kept me reading at certain parts. It was hard, at times, to grasp why we still cared about what happened to Pnin; his life path–his fated love story, his suffering career–seemed to waver and wander with no end in sight. According to one reviewer from Oxford, the literati (whoever they might be) disagree whether this novel is a notable work of Nabokov’s or a sunny light read.

Regardless of what it is, Nabokov’s style is excellent. I was talking with a friend, a noted Russophile, at a party and we discussed how extraordinary Nabokov’s prose truly is. English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet it writes it with more ease and skill than a good half of native English-speaking authors. Having studied a foreign language myself for many years, acquiring this level of mastery of another language is sincerely beyond me. I marvel at a mind of this caliber, that can produce this kind of witty, electric prose:

I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego. The sensation poor Pnin experienced was something very like that divestment, that communion.

The passage illuminates the key qualities of Pnin’s character, but it might as well be talking about any other immigrant struggling to adjust in America. The challenges are universal, the solution the same: stay inside, be small, don’t attract attention. And even though this seems to be Pnin’s orbit, the end of the novel offers a more optimistic future for our anti-hero.


While the book itself was not magnificent, it certainly whetted my appetite for Nabokov, and Lolita has now been moved to the top of my list.

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